How important is a sense of community to the Guildford game development hub?
Harvey Wheaton, studio director, Supermassive Games: I think the Guildford development hub is highly sociable in an informal context. If you go out you’ll see lots of developers, everyone knows everyone and its absolutely fantastic. At a more formal level, it doesn’t really happen.
Stuart Whyte, chief publishing officer, Lionhead Studios: But there is a lot of movement between the studios, and people changing careers within the hub, and there’s connections through that.
Gavin Shields, COO, Turbulenz: We did have our first Tiga meet-up last week, and that was a really good opportunity for business discussions, because typically here, as has been said, it’s great if you can go to a pub, but on a business level there’s not so much here. I think it is important that we try and do more of that.
Wheaton: It is quite hard to find the right vehicle for that though, isn’t it? We’ve been talking about it with Tiga and it is tricky to find the right vehicle for that kind of thing. We need to find a common purpose to provoke more than just going to a pub on a Friday or having a laugh at trade shows. Something needs to change there.
Is that because of the variety of studios in Guildford? You’ve got indies rubbing shoulders with giants like EA.
Barry Meade, director, Fireproof Studios: That mix of large and small has actually been great for us. As a smaller studio, and one with a lot of freelancers, Guildford’s given us the opportunity to work with the likes of Codies and Media Molecule, and we’ve also worked with Sony and Activision.
Shields: In that regard, for us it’s certainly a helpful thing to be here because locally we can be in touch with EA, Codemasters and many others, and that’s a result of us being here in Guildford and some of our guys working elsewhere here in the past.
We’re actually more focused at the moment on the small and medium sized developers right now, and certainly the time is right to be in Guildford. It’s been a massive plus for us, because of the community of developers here.
So there’s a degree of closeness between studios. How much does that help in terms of business development?
Whyte: Lots of the teams in Guildford have bubbled off other studios in the areas. For example, Lionhead bubbled off Bullfrog, and Media Molecule bubbled of Lionhead. Loads of people have bubbled off EA and Criterion, and it’s still going on today.
I think that’s quite healthy, and it’s a really cool thing to happen, especially when – and I don’t know whether this is a bubble or not – the industry is supporting the idea of small teams doing iPhone-type experiences or Facebook games which require no much near as big an investment. It’s a good time for these bubble-off studios to come into being.
So Guildford’s game development ecosystem is well structured so as to adapt to a changing industry?
Patrick O’Luanaigh, CEO, nDreams: That’s certainly the case in terms of being able to form links with other companies. Even for us, being based just outside Guildford, we’ve been able to work with all kinds of big companies like Codemasters. Other companies are not so far away like Double Six and Testology in Aldershot.
So even though we might not see people socially all the time there’s such a good variety of different parts of the industry it’s really useful, which really helps with adapting. If you want to go and visit people and talk stuff over, being so close physically to so much variety is really handy.
Whyte: One thing that’s really interesting in terms of the industry going forward is – and I know Lionhead really use this and I know EA use this – the use of contract staff. In Guildford there is the option of ramping up and ramping down and using contractors because it is the kind of environment and area with enough critical mass of those staff that can support contract model.
It’s great because it allows people to really specialise and move around. We’re certainly starting to see more of that here, but it would be great if there were more companies around the table with regard to contract staff.
Wheaton: Even in the past few weeks I’ve noticed more dialogue and people talking about contractors. That’s really the first I’ve seen of anybody actively pushing that.
Whyte: Yes. Hopefully we can all start to do that more and share. We’re all going to be growing and shrinking at different points as we make games, so the ability to foster an ecosystem where we can support people to move around between Guildford studios, and actually see them learn from different companies and spread that knowledge about making games between us; that could really help us all.
Meade: You could say that the history of the Guildford hub is of a place that has sown the seeds of, well, a lot of things in the industry. I think the studios that exist here are just a little a cut above those in other areas. I’m sure everybody says that about their region, but I think the reason it’s true about Guildford is because there’s a lot of history here, and that’s an important factor.
A lot of the studios like Lionhead, like Media Molecule and like Codemasters employ people that have been part of the Guildford hub for 15 or 20 years, and that’s a huge factor.
It ties in what we’re talking about here because, for example, when we set up Fireproof we saw that the games industry was going to move to a movie industry model, where instead of hiring outsources you’d be hiring really fucking good outsourcers who really know their stuff.
The backdrop that Guildford has and the history it has as a hub means the studios that are here are of a pretty high quality. They’re thriving, and they’re exactly the kind of studios that will allow that business model to thrive. It hasn’t happened completely yet, but with all the start-ups that are appearing here, give it a year or two and I think it will.
Shields: One of the challenges we have come across at Turbulenz is that as we’re trying to combine the best bits of game platforms and the web, from a games developer point of view we’ve had no problem finding some of the best talent in the UK, but we also have to find talented web developers, and most of those seem to be migrating to East London. We haven’t so many around here. Things like David Cameron’s focus on East London make it tough.
On the subject of staffing, doesn’t the number and quality of developers here make it fairly difficult in terms of competition for talent?
Wheaton: We haven’t really had that problem, because Guildford is an attractive place to people all over the country. We’ve had staff join us from all over the place. And it helps that there’s a lot of companies here, so there’s always going to be work.
Whyte: That’s been helpful for us too, as we can let people come down to Guildford, check it out, and see there’s loads of other places in Guildford for work in this industry.
Wheaton: It’s also the case that both Guildford’s game industry, and Guildford in general, is seen as a stable place to be. With all the turbulence in the industry recently, stability is a real strength of Guildford.
Ian Johnson, studio manager, Codemasters: It does really help that Guildford’s a great place to move if you’re bringing your family. If you’re in that position this is a place with lots of opportunities.
Meade: The fact that there are lots of smaller companies here also helps, I think. There’s so many different studio models here, in these turbulent times, if I were worried about loosing my job, its far better. Also, those smaller studios potentially offer staff more of a role, and maybe a bigger pay off in the long term.
Shields: The success stories here like that of Media Molecule are important too, as success breeds success, and that’s good for attracting talent to the area.
Everyone seems fairly open to collaboration. How far could that be extended?
Johnson: There’s possible ways we can help each other with efficiency. Some studios down here, for example, have their own mocap set-up, so there are ways we can share facilities and hardware or something like that. There’s definitely ways we can help each other, and I think people are open to that.
It almost seems Guildford boasts a degree of self-sufficiency as a development hub. Is that fair to say?
Johnson: That seems to be becoming true, and I think that’s partly a response by the studios here to the competition we’re facing from overseas.
There’s obviously enticing tax incentives in places like Canada, so the way that we can compete with those is to be efficient. We can obviously do that internally as individual studios, but I think if as a group we had the confidence to share resources between ourselves instead of grabbing onto things like they are some valuable golden eggs, that would be ideal. That’s nationally relevant too, but obviously getting there will mean many hurdles.
Perhaps Guildford is best positioned to set the example?
Johnson: Absolutely. I think if anywhere in the UK is going to set the benchmark for this, it will be a place like Guildford.
Meade: That’s very true. I think people here are very comfortable with change, because there’s so many studios around here it happens all the time.
It all sounds very positive, but there must be challenges in Guildford.
Johnson: Certainly Guildford could benefit from some kind of angel or venture capital base. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that it doesn’t exist, but there’s enough companies here that would find it very useful. Especially seed funding or funding of less than two or three million pounds.
Meade: It would have been great if one of those guys had rocked up here a couple of years ago. But other than that, there’s few negatives about Guildford. There could be better places to go out, that’s for sure.